By RALPH VACCHIANO
There isn’t much that can get a rise out of Bill Belichick, the stoic, unemotional, coach of the New England Patriots. He’s been to four Super Bowls as a head coach, won three, and built himself a dynasty in New England. But talking about the power he’s built rarely elicits a smile.
It’s different, though, when Belichick is asked about the past – specifically the great New York Giants teams he was a part of in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was the genius defensive coordinator back then under the future Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, helping to guide one of the NFL’s greatest teams.
Ask Belichick about that if you want to see him smile. Talk to him about those teams if you want an expansive answer. Even as his Patriots prepare to face the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, he was peppered with questions about his days as an assistant with the Giants. That is something he could talk about for hours.
That was an experience he described as “awesome.” It was a enough to make him smile.
“It was a great job,” Belichick said. “It was awesome. I loved that job. I loved coaching the Giants’ defense. Being in New York, being a part of that great organization and those great players I had the opportunity to coach.
“In all honesty, I wasn’t thinking then about if this was what I was going to do at some other point. We were trying to win there. We won in 1986, and it was a great year. We rebuilt the team, and we won again. I was consumed with that. I really just try to live in the moment.”
It was a great moment in time, of course, and Belichick was a major part of it. The Giants’ defense, choreographed by Belchick led the way to Super Bowl titles in 1986 (XXI) and 1990 (XXV). It helped that he had great players like Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, George Martin, Leonard Marshall, Jim Burt and so many more.
Belichick, though, is the one that put them together. Belichick is the maestro who made them sing.
“We had a great staff and great players,” the Patriots coach recalled. “One of the biggest things I learned, that I can’t do today, but I know, is how tough those players were. We practiced every day in pads -- every single day in pads. There were years that we practiced every single day on the turf before we had the grass practice fields up there on the hill
“We did 9-on-7 -- which is a good-tempo running drill -- on a regular basis. In training camp, we went out in pads every day. We hit every day. We did 9-on-7 every day. There was no way Bill (Parcells) would go out on the field without doing 9-on-7. We’d skip stretching before we’d skip 9-on-7.”
Times, of course has changed and so have the rules, which has forced Belichick to – reluctantly – change, too. Still, he made sure to have his Patriots practice at least once in pads during Super Bowl week. The lessons he learned from Parcells and those great Giants teams were not easily forgotten.
And the biggest lesson he learned is that football players – really great football players – are supposed to be unbelievably tough.
“When you get those guys crashing into each other – Jumbo (Elliott) and Mark Bavaro blocking (Lawrence) Taylor, (Carl) Banks, (Jim) Burt and all them – they just lined up and played football,” Belichick said. “I know it was a different era, but it will never be like that again. I learned players can be tough, they can be physical, they can do more than they think they can do.”
He tried to take that approach with him in his first job as a head coach with the Cleveland Browns. But when the results weren’t good, he was criticized for being too tough on his players – something he even still finds a little hard to believe.
“Maybe I took it a little too far in Cleveland, I don’t know,” Belichick said. “It was kind of the same thing when I got there. People said that we were too demanding and we were doing too much. I was thinking to myself, ‘I was with the Giants for 12 years. I saw this every day for 12 years. Don’t tell me we can’t go out there and have 9-on-7 two days in a row. I know we can.’ ”
Now, all these years later, he finds other ways to get the toughness out of his players. It’s his responsibility now, and he’s the undisputed king of the coaching fraternity. He won’t talk much about that during the run up to Super Bowl XLVI, but he will gladly talk about where all his strengths came from. He was once a Giant, and he still considers that one of the best jobs he ever had.